The Politics of Curly Hair

I tend to only get my hair cut once a year, partly due to lack of funds and partly because I’m lazy. So, I made an appointment for my “yearly” cut a few days ago, and they got me in yesterday.

I had been to this particular hair salon the year before, but saw a different stylist. I enjoyed the simple cut they gave me last year, so I knew it would be a good fit. I walked in there, feeling like my curls looked so scraggly and gross (probably because it had been a year since my hair had been cut), and the whole time the woman was cutting my hair, she gave me shit for not getting in sooner. I laughed it off, but really, dude? I’m a fucking grad student—I don’t have 50 to 60 dollars to spare that often, and if I do, I’m not going to spend it at a hair salon most likely. Anyway, besides the stylist constantly berating me about how long ago my last cut had been, I was enjoying the experience.

Then it happened.

Before I could say anything, she had begun styling my hair straight . Last year, the other stylist asked me, “Would you like your hair styled straight or curly?” I replied, “Curly—that’s how I wear it.” The questioned seemed foreign to me. This time, however, I was not asked. I was not given the choice. It was just assumed that, because I have naturally curly hair I would want it straightened. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a change once in a while, so straight hair is exciting to me; I just didn’t appreciate the absence of choice.

This is all quite problematic, because I feel, especially in American society, that the media tells us straight hair = beautiful , curly hair = unattractive .

For example, in any makeover show, if the woman has curly hair to start, the “makeover” will involved straightening her curls. Straight hair is looked at as normative, sexy, and mature, while curly hair is seen as the laughable, unruly baby. I get super frustrated when I see famous women straighten their once beloved curls, like Keri Russell (of Felicity), for example. I mean, her curls were big and beautiful on that show and then she received Hollywood stardom and her hair became straightened. What are we telling curly-haired girls? I remember growing up and feeling like no famous woman had hair like me and all I wanted was to have straight hair. To this day, I still deal with this internalized beauty standard (i.e. I often feel “sexier” and/or “prettier” when my hair is straight). This is fucked up. Why don’t I feel sexy and pretty and beautiful with my curly hair? What’s different? When my hair is kept curly, it’s as though society attempts to remove my sexuality. It’s as though curly-haired women are not sexualized as their straight-haired counterparts.

This brings to me another point: hair color hierarchy. Still, to this day, I am told through media images that “blondes have more fun” and that brunettes are just the “marrying kind.” Who wants that? The hair color hierarchy seems to look like this:





I remember being in Italy with a friend who looked stereotypically American: blue-eyed, blonde, fair skin. Whenever we went out, men always gawked at her “exoticness.” To them, I looked “normal” and not exciting. At stores, salespeople would always ask my blonde friend if she needed help with anything. They never asked me, though.

This all comes back to the feeling of inadequacy. Because the hair stylist assumed I wanted my curls straightened, she regurgitated the societal ideology of straight hair = beautiful . Will this ever stop? And will hair color hierarchy ever fade?

And though I enjoy this brief transformation, I take comfort in knowing that my curls will breathe once again, when I wash the “straight” out of them.

Curly hair 4 life.

Join the Conversation

  • Chas

    It does seem like the only type of curly hair acceptable are fake, tonged-to-death crispy curls created on someone with straight hair. Natural squiggles, or god-forbid Afro hair, is usually treated as something that’s got to ‘be tamed’. Look at all the products out there promising to smooth and sleeken your hair. That said, hair dressers do tend to fawn over my naturally curly hair, but they usually ruin the effect by saying something deeply patronising such as ‘Curly hair’s coming back in, you know’ (thanks for effectively telling me my hair’s been out of fashion up til now), or they use it as their own personal plaything to see how bouffed-up and 80s they can get it. Last time I needed a haircut, I did it myself – I reckon I know my hair better than any stylist, and on reflection I think I was right.
    Things do go in cycles though. Generally fashion and beauty are about making people want whatever they don’t have. Go back a couple of decades and everyone was getting their hair permed to look like us lucky curly-heads. My gran still scolds me ‘people pay lots of money to have hair like yours’ whenever I moan (old ladies do love curls, I think it’s a generational thing). If everyone was content with the way they looked, the beauty industry would go bust, so they have a vested interest in making you think the grass is always greener. Got curly hair? Straighten it? Straight hair? Curl it. etc etc. The more women ignore the so-called ‘advice’ of hair stylists and fashionistas, the better we’ll all feel about ourselves.

  • Lily A

    Right on, curly girl! I was actually thinking of writing a post about my struggles with my curls this week too, but you beat me to the punch.
    I definitely sympathize with your experience. I’m sick of stylists who don’t know how to cut my hair, who always want to straighten it, or who treat it like it’s some exotic beast.
    I think there’s an ethnic element here, too. In our culture, white people’s hair is considered more “beautiful” than other races. But even among white people, certain ethnicities’ traits are more valued. Central and northern Europeans are more likely to have straight, shiny hair than ethnic “others” like Jews, southern Europeans, Middle Easterners, etc. When I hear about how I have to “control” or “tame” my “mane,” often I’m hearing that I have to be “whiter” to be considered feminine / professional / sophisticated.
    I don’t know what ethnic background you come from, so this might not apply to you… but for me, realizing that my curly hair is an outward sign of my Jewish heritage helped me come to terms with it. When I moved to a part of the country where most white folks are northern / central European in origin and the few curly girls almost always straighten their hair, I felt instantly like an outsider for wearing my curls naturally. But by refusing to straighten, I’m setting an example of somebody who is proud of my ethnicity and proud of being different… and maybe paving the way for other curly women to quit spending so much time and money in the morning trying to fit in!

  • Destra

    I hope you didn’t tip that stylist!

  • MikeT

    On the other hand, my ex was always being approached by straight-haired girls wanting to know where she got her “perm”. Her standard reply was, “My mom gave it to me.”
    I say rock whatcha got.

  • genericjanedoe

    As a curly haired red head, I can definitely relate to your feelings. Every time I go get my hair done, I opt for the straight styling simply because it is so time consuming and difficult for me to do it myself, and if I’m paying for a styling…I figure I might as well allow someone else to do it. However, in “real life” I rarely style it straight. I, personally, like my curls better PLUS laziness is also a huge factor for me.
    The amount of compliments I get when my hair is straightened is astounding. It’s almost as if people go out of their way to praise me into straightening, in hopes that I might adopt this permanently.
    Also, I would venture to say that the amount of training people receive in cosmetology school on curly hair is sad, as I’ve had more botched haircuts than I care to admit. (Not something my straight haired friends deal with.) Maybe that’s why they always want to straighten…to get my hair into a form that is something they’re more familiar with. Either way, it is annoying.
    And I definitely agree there there is an ethnicity element to this as well. I am white, but I worked at a summer camp that served primarily black girls ages 6-14 for 4 years. The girls were always astounded as to why I wouldn’t want to straighten my hair since it was so “easy” for me (as opposed to chemical straighteners, I just need a hot iron.) It never ceased to amaze me how even my 6 year olds had it so thoroughly ingrained in their minds that straight (Caucasian) hair is superior to any kind of kink or curl.

  • Anna

    thank you for this ladychrist!
    i know people always say you want what you don’t have… but just to share something, i’ve ALWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYS wanted curly hair! i have very, very straight hair. and to me this always equated with BLAHHHH. i even got a perm once and i loved it (: i’ve always envied women with curly, “unruly” hair because it seemed to add so much to their appearance. not to diminish at all the pressures youve faced as a curly haired woman, just wanted to let you know there is ALWAYS someone who is envying your beautiful curly hair (:
    – Anna, Community Moderator

  • Brenna

    I, too, am a redhead with curly hair. In middle school I would have my mom straighten my hair sometimes, and everyone would always compliment me. Every time I had my hair straight, girls would say, “why don’t you straighten your hair more often?” Maybe because I have thick, long hair that I can barely put up, let alone spend an hour straightening.
    I always hate my hair when its poofy and frizzy, because I feel like straight and flat is what’s pretty. I never really thought about these feelings towards my hair. I really should love my curls and waves!

  • holmes

    this is really interesting – I also have naturally curly (very wavy) hair. i’ve always felt that people see straight hair as more “professional” – the older i get (I’m 28), and the more advanced i become in my career, the less curly or unruly hair I see around me.
    There are definitely connotations to curly and straight hair that I’d never really considered outside of the idea that I might look “unprofessional”

  • Stellar

    I am so sorry y’all with curly hair have to deal with this!! I naturally have straight hair, but since I was little, I have always thought curly hair was beautiful, and I curl my hair every so often. I honestly had no idea that women with curly hair had to go through this garbage! How small minded of people…

  • pegasaurus

    My mom always gets on my case about my curly hair – calling it messy and saying that I need to brush it. Even though I repeatedly point out that if I brush it, it’s only going to get even frizzier and wackier.
    And you know what’s really sad about it? She’s had curly red hair all her life too and she’s just always kept it cut short using the excuse that it looks horrible when longer and curlier. I can’t imagine spending my whole life not enjoying my hair and fighting with it.
    Also, I find it rude how some people are weirded out by what it takes to take care of curls. People look at me like I’m disgusting and lack basic hygiene skills when I tell them I usually only wash my hair with shampoo once a week. Or that I don’t bother to brush it much at all.

  • m.confabulation

    This reminds me of the problems I have had finding a good hairdresser. I’m caucasian, but my hair isn’t ‘normal.’ It’s very fine, there is masses of it, and, most shockingly of all, it’s curley. Most of the hairdressers I’ve been to wouldn’t have a problem with this, if I saw my hair as an aboration and spent my mornings with a straightning iron. But I like my curly hair, which leads to lots of problems. I’ve had hairdressers:
    – argue with me that I would actually like having straight hair more
    – secretly straighten my hair (long story)
    – try to tell me that my hair will look better if I spend my mornings straightning it and then using curling tongs (?)
    When I have been adamant that I want to keep my hair curley this has generally resulted in a dowdy style. Any attempts by me to ask for anything apart from this style were met with the claim that ‘it won’t suit your hair.’ I now believe that a large amount of hairdressers are never trained to cut anything except ‘normal’ hair, with maybe a standard cut for ‘problem’ types. Thankfully, I’ve now found an awesome hairdresser who cuts my hair how I want it and never preaches to me about how I should want my hair straight. She has no problem giving me awesome haircuts that other hairdressers would deem ‘unworkable.’ And she gives me a special grad student price!